With Eight Weeks to Go, Israel Has Left Eurovision 2019 to Fend for Itself

Government ministries are passing the buck from one to the other, while key issues like security arrangements and transportation have yet to be resolved

FILE PHOTO: Israeli singer, Netta Barzilai, winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, listens during her interview with Reuters in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Israel’s hosting of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest was supposed to be an opportunity for Israel to show itself to the world. But with less than eight weeks to go, key aspects of the event, including the budget for security and transportation arrangements during Shabbat, have yet to be decided.

The reason is that no one in the Israeli government has been willing to take responsibility for the event or to provide the promised funding. Question submitted by TheMarker last week resulted in a round robin of passing the buck from one government ministry to another.

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In the meantime, responsibility for the event, whose grand final is May 18, has fallen on the public broadcaster Kan and the city of Tel Aviv, whose Expo Tel Aviv International Convention Center is the contest venue.

The government was supposed to put up 110 million shekels ($30.4 million) of the original estimated budget of 150 million shekels. Instead, it agreed to extend a 70 million shekel, 15-year loan to Kan. The overall budget was trimmed to 120 million shekels, which Kan itself will foot.

Sales of broadcasting rights and tickets will help to cover costs. But because Kan is getting so little state aid, it has been forced to raise ticket prices. That, in turn, is likely to mean fewer foreign Eurovision tourists than originally anticipated.

In the meantime, Tel Aviv has earmarked funds — originally set at 20 million shekels, they now stand at 30 million shekels — for side events. They include the Euro Village, with musical performances, street parties and food stalls, at a cost of up to 5 million shekels.

The Eurovision is rarely praised for the quality of its music, but it attracts giant television audiences and gives over a lot of time during the broadcast for the host country to market itself.

Not only do music fans come to the host country, so do the media. In the case of Eurovision 2019, some 1,500 registered journalists will be in Israel for the event, more than accompanied Barack Obama when he visited as president in 2013 or when Pope Francis came a year later.

The Government Press Office is preparing a program for journalists called “Israel beyond the conflict,” and Tel Aviv is laying on free admission to museums and the like.

File photo: Israelis celebrate after Netta's victory in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, Tel Aviv, May 13, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

As for Eurovision tourists, early estimates were of 14,000 to 18,000, a number that officials connected to the song contest have cut to 10,000 due to high ticket and hotel prices. That’s tiny, relative to Israel’s 4.1 million foreign tourists last year, but Eurovision’s impact goes far beyond the number of tourists who attend.

“In terms of the number of foreign tourists, it’s a nice event, but it doesn’t make a big difference,” Tourism Minster Yariv Levin said last week. “Its big importance is that the events can be a lever for major marketing, especially toward the European countries.”

Despite that, the Tourism Ministry has neglected Eurovision in its marketing campaigns, although it promises that a campaign will be launched soon.

The Tourism Ministry hasn’t been the only one to ignore Eurovision. The Culture and Sports Ministry, which is headed by Miri Regev, said in response to a question from TheMarker that it “isn’t involving itself in the Eurovision, including the issue of pooling government resources, which is the responsibility of the Communications Ministry.”

The Communications Ministry boasted to TheMarker of its role as a head of the interministerial steering committee responsible for Eurovison 2019 but said the “issue of costs is under the purview of the Finance Ministry.” The Finance Ministry said that all matters regarding Eurovision should be addressed to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The official neglect is a stunning contrast to the part of the Giro d’Italia 2018 that was held in Israel in May in Israel. It benefited from 31.5 million shekels from the state as well as marketing support from the Culture and Sports Ministry and from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who showed off his bicycling skills to the visiting riders.

Providing security for the contest and all the surrounding events has emerged as a major problem in face of official neglect. Netanyahu promised in an October meeting with Dr. Frank-Dieter Freiling, the chairman of the expert committee overseeing the European Broadcasting Union’s Eurovision events, that the government would provide security for the main event, as is customary for host countries.

File photo: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu pose for a photo with Israeli singer Netta at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, May 16, 2018.
Haim Zach/GPO

But as of now, no comprehensive solution has been forthcoming and no ministry has taken on the responsibility for security, raising growing concern among countries sending delegations to the contest.

The obvious address, Israel’s Public Security Ministry, told TheMarker that it was unprepared to allocate a budget for Eurovision.

“As with any commercial event, security costs are borne by the organizers, who knew very well in advance that there were security and policing costs and were supposed to take this into consideration. The ministry and the police are unable to fully or partially fund security costs for events of commercial or private entities,” a spokesman said.

For now, costs for the main events are being funded by Kan, which has hired private security companies at a cost of about 12 million shekels. But to date there is no solution for another 13 million it will cost to provide security for the week of side events, such as the Euro Village.

An informed source said officials were nearing an agreement for the government to assume 7 million shekels of security costs, shared among various ministries. But, he added, no decision had yet been made.

Public transportation is another issue that remains unresolved because of the official vacuum. The Eurovision grand findal takes places on a Saturday night, just after Shabbat, which means public transportation will be unavailable until just before the gates open. In addition, there will be no public transportation for the Friday evening and Saturday rehearsals. Ride-sharing and taxis won’t be able to handle all the demand.

“We’ll find a solution,” said Gidi Schmerling, the Tel Aviv municipal spokesman, who is also heading up the city’s Eurovision operations. He insists that all the relevant government ministries have been cooperating. “We’re conducting a dialogue with the Transportation Ministry.”

When queried by TheMarker, the Transportation Ministry declined to even discuss Shabbat as an issue. Instead, it boasted of plans to add extra bus and train service to the Tel Aviv Expo fair grounds and a new line from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Tel Aviv hotels as well as services in English.

The Eurovision organizers also have to contend with surging prices for hotels and Airbnb apartments. May is a high-occupancy month for hotels, which means there are relatively few rooms for Eurovision tourists.

A plan by Tel Aviv to sponsor an urban campground flopped when no contractor bid for the rights to manage it.

“If it weren’t for Airbnb a lot fewer tourists would be coming — that’s the bottom line,” said Schmerling. “Even now there are tourists who aren’t coming because of a shortage of hotel rooms at reasonable prices. ... We’re talking about tourists who see that hotel rooms cost $300 a night and say to themselves, ‘Okay, I’m not coming.’”